By Christa McNerney, Ph.D.
One of the most gratifying facets of being a pastoral counselor has been the experiences I have had in helping clients traumatized in childhood to find and develop their positive experiences with God.
I found that the majority of clients who came to me with childhood abuse stories had internalized a powerful, and demanding parental God. This God was hard to satisfy, quick to point out failures and ready with shame and condemnation. Even those coming from homes with ostensibly “good theology,” had been deeply affected by the twin humiliations of being completely disempowered and forever failing to take care of a parent(s) as they thought they should. Those whose abuse was sexual also bore the shame of being inescapably “bad.” Participating in actions they intuited to be “bad” shamed them deeply, but any resistance or refusal made them just as bad. They could never appear before God as anything but bad, filled with shame and self-condemnation.
However, in each case there were also at least some experiences of a “good God.” With one there was the meadow creek she visited as a child to escape from her sexually and intellectually demanding father and parentifying mother. She had one aunt who let her be a child and nurtured her creativity. And she had the ability to deeply absorb positive biblical stories. Another client also found solace in nature, this one in the redwoods of the pacific coast and the ocean itself. Friendships, music, and her church community were also resources from which we could draw. The third client could enjoy nature and allow herself to be relaxed in the outdoors.
However, her tight control over all the facets of her life could be released only in the memory of the angel who appeared at her bed when, as an eight-year-old, she was contemplating suicide. The image of this protective spirit helped her to gradually trust in a faithful God.
As each of these clients and I nurtured positive memories, the god of demands and condemnation very gradually began to be eclipsed by a God of understanding, care and joyful acceptance. Not only have I been privileged to participate in the growth of these hard working clients but by allowing me to walk the journey with them these clients and others like them have been profoundly instrumental in deepening my own spiritual life.
I am grateful.
This is the Pacific Region's writing series of reflections from pastoral counselors in the region. If you are interested in sharing your own reflections on being a pastoral counselor or on pastoral counseling in general, please contact us. We would love to share your story too.